Getting better doesn’t just happen because we want to get better, it happens because we work at it. Whether in sports or farming, that adage is true. Irrigation is no different.
If your season long goal is to be a good irrigator, then your number one weekly goal is to use the least amount of water possible to maintain your best economic yield, because that is the most cost effective and profitable way for you to grow your crop. Your number two weekly goal is to water as infrequently as possible because that strategy promotes plant health. By watering your plants when needed, and equally important, not irrigating them when they don’t, you can increase health, promote deeper root growth, and make your plants more disease resistant.
So why is it so challenging to water efficiently and effectively? Is irrigation really that complicated? I mean, this is pretty simple, as irrigation comes down to two decisions, when to turn the water on, and when to turn water off. To me, that oversimplification is much like saying football is a simple game. All you need to do to win is score more points than the other team! Obviously, in both football and irrigation, it is much more complicated than that. To use water efficiently and effectively, we need to wear many hats; be part Soil Scientist, part Hydrologist, part Physicist, part Psychiatrist, part Weatherman, and part Agronomist.
There are really four methods of irrigation management when it comes down to it. Method one is to irrigate because everyone else is. This is where the part Psychiatrist comes in. There is a tremendous amount of peer pressure and anxiety involved when you have the only pivots in sight that are not on when everybody else is running. Method two is the calendar based method. When the calendar hits July 4th, you just start running the pivot around so you are putting 1.5” of water a week on to replace evapotranspiration. ET gauges fall into this group, and this is where the science starts to come in. The focus of this method has been to replace our expenditures but doesn’t do well with outside factors. Can our soils absorb water at the rate you are putting it on, are we pushing nitrates down by overwatering, and are we leaving room for rain if it comes? Method three is the Hand Probe and feel. If you are a disciple of this, first let me thank you. Your dedication to reading what your soil is telling you is admirable. I equate you to the doctor who actually checks you over and runs a couple of tests to see if you have an infection before he gives you antibiotics, instead of writing you a script after three minutes of asking you questions and basing the decision on some superficial factors. But, and you know there was a but coming, how repeatable is your diagnosis? Much like getting a second opinion in medicine, what is the likelihood of a second person giving you the exact same diagnosis with the hand probe and feel method?
Which leads to method four, Soil Moisture probes. Soil moisture probes come in many different configurations. We can choose solutions that are fairly simple like the gypsum block. I won’t spend much time on them, except saying that they don’t work well in some soil types, and while they are cheap to purchase, over time, the costs associated with properly installing and replacing them after failed extractions eliminates much of their upfront cost savings advantages. On the opposite end of the spectrum are neutron probes. Wonderfully accurate, but completely unreasonable to use in production ag due to the upfront costs and the regulations surrounding them. So as with many things in life, our best choice falls somewhere in the middle, with capacitance probes. These are a blend of practical, accurate and affordable that we can build solutions around. These sensors send out a frequency that lets us measure water at a molecular level. This means they are more useful in irrigation management than those that just give soil water tension because they indicate when, where, and how much water our crop is using. Once we establish our Field Capacity and Wilting Point for the season, we have it made. These sensors allow us to stack multiple sensors in one hole, so we are getting a reading on water usage as often as every four inches they also give us other information, like soil temperature.
Of course, all of this is completely impractical if it isn’t actionable information. If you are going to ask your soil to help you understand when and how much to irrigate, you need to be able to access that information to help yourself, and your Agronomist make actionable decisions. Our solution – AquaSystems, takes that information from the Soil Moisture probe and puts it onto your computer or phone in a format that is easy to understand and easy to access. Not only can we see how much moisture we are using per day, but we know where in the root zone it’s coming from. Plus, if we have your pivot tied into the system, we can divide the information into categories to see if our moisture has come from irrigation or rainfall. The final piece of the website ties the information together to show you when it is time to irrigate and puts information in front of you so you can decide how much you need to apply.
Solutions are only worth something if they are deployed. If we never send a player into the game, they never have a chance to impact the outcome. AquaSystems is the sophomore on our team right now. It’s been around long enough to know what’s going on; it has learned the systems, and it’s shown us it has the potential to change the game. The question is, do we stick with the senior that’s ok and a known commodity because we’ve been around it forever, or do we put in the sophomore with loads more potential and take a small, but calculated chance?